The Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching (1963-1967)
The pilot project, initially funded for one year, was a teacher-driven, school-based, neighborhood-oriented solution to the problem of low-performing students. It was an attempted reform of schools by creating a different model of preparing sharp, skilled teachers on-site and involved in the local community to turn around low-performing segregated schools. This school-based reform model rejected the traditional university-based teacher education programs wholly separated from impoverished neighborhoods that had failed for decades.[i]
Master teachers in academic subjects trained returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach while drawing from neighborhood resources. Once trained, the reform theory went, these ex-Peace Corps volunteers would become crackerjack teachers who could hook listless students through creative lessons drawing from their knowledge of ghetto neighborhoods and personal relationships with students and their families. As a result, more Cardozo students would go on to college, fewer would drop out. That was the reform model.
As luck would have it, the Project got funded each year in last-minute negotiations between federal and district agencies. I continued to teach at Cardozo High School, eventually directing the program until 1967. I recruited Cardozo teachers to be master teachers—we called them “affiliates”–to train interns.
By 1965-1966, applicants included Peace Corps returnees, civil rights activists who had worked in the South, and veterans of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) who had worked on community projects in fighting poverty. It was a feisty mix of teachers and community activists who were active in D.C. civil rights protests and the growing anti-Vietnam War.
In early 1965, the project sponsored a conference for D.C. teachers on improving instruction and connections between schooling and civil rights. The first of its kind, the conference was held on Howard University’s campus and attracted nearly 100 D.C. teachers and activists. For the keynote address, I got Staughton Lynd, a Spelman College professor who had directed the Freedom Summer (1964) where more than 40 schools were set up in Black communities. Workshops on teaching Basic Track students (the lowest academic track in the D.C. schools at the time), links between poverty and schooling, teaching social studies during civil rights protests, and developing curriculum materials to use in lessons.
That was a high for me to bring together District teachers (including current and former Project teachers) for a conference on curriculum and instruction tailored to D.C. students at a time when civil right activists pressed for multi-ethnic materials and murmurings of Black Power began to emerge. My civil rights involvement had moved from a focus on classroom teaching to the conditions of D.C. schools and how to improve them.
If the conference was a high, the low I experienced was the continual coping with uncertain funding each year. Tortuous conversations with federal and D.C. agencies opened my eyes to how politically and bureaucratically thorny it is to engage students and involve parents and residents while negotiating with top-level local and federal administrators. The complex network of relationships inside and outside of the district and the intersection between school, students, community, and organizational bureaucracies became hurdles to leap in order to get teachers to spend afternoons and evenings working with families in federally funded neighborhood centers near Cardozo.
It took four long years for me and other advocates to convince the D.C. superintendent and school board that recruiting and training Peace Corps returnees benefited the district for not only for contributions to teaching and student learning but also because the program lessened the annual scramble to staff all of its classrooms. The superintendent finally agreed to take over the program in 1967 re-naming it the Urban Teacher Corps and expanding it from recruiting and training 50 new teachers a year to over a hundred annually.[ii]
After this exhilarating but exhausting experience at Cardozo, I saw my job of getting the teacher education program incorporated into the regular D.C. school budget as being done. I returned to teaching U.S. history at Roosevelt High School, another D.C. high school, further north on 13th St.
[i]In 1966, the U.S. Congress had authorized the National Teachers Corps, based on the model we created at Cardozo High School. I served on the Advisory Board for the National Teacher Corps. In 1971, after four years of recruiting and training teachers in the Urban Teacher Corps, a new Washington, D.C. superintendent abolished the program. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ended federal funding for the Teacher Corps.
[ii] Maxine Daly,”The Teacher as Innovator: A Report on Urban Teacher Corps,” Journal of Negro Education, 1975, 44(3), pp. 385-390.